Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 35 miles – Time out: Three days
Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Elevation: 4,464 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
June 2, 2013
I loved hiking over Anderson Pass in Olympic National Park. This three day journey has it all; lush lowland forests, subalpine terrain and a snow choked pass if you are crazy enough to hike it early in the spring. I appreciated the wilderness and the solitude, more so since early park planners had wanted to build a highway over Anderson Pass. My Anderson Pass adventure began far down in the Dosewallips River valley where until 2002 you could drive your automobile up the road to the Dosewallips Campground. That year a storm washed away a big hunk of highway 5.5 miles below the campground. A passionate debate whether to repair the Dosewallips Road followed. This debate over the Dosewallips Road was part of the bigger battle that was fought in Olympic National Park for half a century: should roads be cut through the park that would give tourists greater access, like over Anderson Pass, or should we leave the wilderness alone?
I set out at noon. Beyond the washout at the Dosewallips trailhead, the old automobile road narrowed into a foot path with scrubby hardwood trees and thorny brush closing in from both sides. The road and river climbed toward the pass in tandem; the road sloped gradually upward where there was slack water, but at places like Dosewallips Falls there was a steep hill that I huffed up. At 2pm I walked into the Dosewallips campground. Since the Dosewallips River Road has devolved from road to trail, a handful of backpackers and mountain bikers have replaced the packed cars, loaded camp trailers and big RV’s. The flat campground, built for a hundred vehicles, was a green field of knee-high shoots. A rusting sign peppered with buckshot warned nobody in particular, ‘Speed Limit 20 miles per hour.’ I sat at a picnic table that was sinking into the earth where family station-wagons once parked.
Fewer vehicles entering the interior of Olympic National Park contrasted with the goals of the road-building craze that swept through national parks like Yellowstone and Mt. Rainier in the first two decades of the last century. For early park planners, including those at the newly designated Olympic National Monument, automobiles and wilderness were compatible. By the mid-thirties the original administrator in Olympic, the U.S. Forest Service, had completed the highway to the Dosewallips campground where I stood now, and was planning on continuing the highway over the icy mountains into the Quinault River valley where I was headed. In his excellent book, Windshield Wilderness, author David Louter wrote:
The Forest Service justified the trans-mountain Quinault – Dosewallips Road, which traversed the highly scenic Anderson Pass (by arguing) such a road was the best way to bring auto tourists into ‘closer touch with glacier country… The road would provide direct access to the high country, reducing the time backcountry travelers spent hiking…through the region’s ‘least interesting country.’
I followed the West Fork of the Dosewallips River Valley where it branched at Dose Forks, 1.5 miles from the Dosewallips campground. I walked past elegant scarlet Columbines, red Paintbrushes and bright yellow Sedums. The undergrowth thinned and pink rhododendron bushes bloomed. In a clearing I watched a black bear snouting for grubs. I walked across the river on a high bridge, tumbling foam and deep blue pools far below. The trail wound through tall fir trees filled with birds singing rapturous mating calls. This didn’t seem like ‘least interesting country’ to me.
The U.S. Forest Service reluctantly transferred administrative duties to the National Park Service when Olympic was upgraded to a National Park in 1938. Principles of road construction were a major difference between the two government agencies. Louter explained that the U.S. Forest Service built roads for multiple uses; recreation, logging, mining and ranching. The new park stewards, the National Park Service, supported an untested concept at Olympic National Park; a roadless park that was a wilderness sanctuary. In 1933 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, one of the National Park Services biggest supporters said, “If I had my way about national parks, I would create one without a road in it. I would have it impenetrable forever to automobiles, a place where man would not try to improve upon God.”
It was 6 pm when I slipped my backpack off my shoulders at Diamond Meadow – elevation 2,692 feet. I had tramped 12.5 miles since noon and gained 2,100 feet on the gently rising trail. Diamond Meadow was a green glen, scoured open by a past snow slide. A small deer was doing a wonderful job keeping the grass mowed. At the edge of the meadow was a flat space under the fir trees where I made camp. I was all alone.
Shadows merged and the colors of the forest bled to darkness by the time dinner was eaten. I washed my bowl, hung my food, and lit a small fire. My waterproof bivouac bag lay on the soft forest floor. Inside my bivy was the snug inner cocoon – my pad and sleeping bag. Sitting down and removing my camp slippers, I thrust my stocking feet deep into the sleeping bag, stretched out, and pulled up the outer zipper. Next to my face was a red carpet of fallen needles, sprinkled with twigs, and the tips of green boughs. The ground, so recently suffocating under heavy snow, exhaled with a long moist breath. The fire flicked shadows across the broad tree trunks that ringed my campsite. In the darkness beyond, came a, “thump, thump, thump.” A rolling rock, pushed along the bottom of the rushing river, tumbled downstream until it found a more suitable resting place. The only other sounds were the wind gently swishing the tops of the big firs, and the snapping twigs of the tiny fire.
I hiked through here to Anderson Glacier with my friend Joel last summer. Exploring with Joel was fun, but I enjoyed this solo backpacking trip. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, where miles of forest began at the edge of our lawn, solitary adventure was as easy and frequent as telling mom and walking out the door. Decades later, it’s rare to be miles away from people, the Internet, or a cell phone tower; it’s only here deep in the roadless wilderness, that I can re-live the peaceful solitude of my youth.
It was a cold night and I slept hard. It was still dark when I awoke and pulled the bivouac bag down from my head. All was quiet. The sound of the river was muffled without daytime snowmelt. There was no moon but through the branches above there were stars – many, many stars. I lay awake for a moment and breathed the chilly air. Then, smiling luxuriantly, I slid deeply into the warmth of my bivouac bag and fell back to sleep.
When I woke again the sun had already brushed the tops of the Douglas Firs. I quickly boiled water for coffee and oatmeal and was on the trail by 8:30, and soon after was crossing long flat stretches of crusty snow. The fir and hemlock forest smelled like it had been scrubbed clean by winter. I enjoy hiking in the tropics, but after a time I’m uncomfortable in the thick, flowery climate. Here in this bracing valley of green and white – just conifers and snow – it smelled like all had been washed with a plain bar of soap and rinsed in a basin of cold water.
Though hikers like me supported wilderness, communities around the Olympic Peninsula with tourism-centric economies lobbied for road construction into the wilderness for decades. In their commentary to the 1976 ONP Master Plan, one organization argued that wilderness, “…discriminates against the vast majority of people by making it impossible for them to enjoy the fantastic backcountry of the Olympic Mountains…Only a select handful of hardy, experienced backpackers will be indulged.”
Yes, the roadless wilderness has limited access into the interior of Olympic National Park to only backpackers. When I reached Honeymoon Meadows at 10am and stood at 3,527 feet in a bright white field of hard-packed snow, there wasn’t anybody else around. The Dosewallips gurgled along the lower border of the snowy meadow, while at the upper edge a sheer gray cliff rose up hundreds of feet. I sat down on a log, zipped my gators over my calves and strapped my crampon spikes to the soles of my boots. It would be winter until I crossed Anderson Pass.
The trail turned steep and I panted on upward. The sharp teeth of my crampons bit into the rock-hard snow with each toe kick and my climbing poles kept me balanced with every stab. The sky was pure blue and the snow so bright it hurt my eyes when I pulled down my sunglasses to wipe away the sweat. I zigzagged through the forest along the ridge to the right. It would have been easier to climb straight up the open swath to my left, but the muffled Dosewallips River hid underneath. If I were to break through the thin veneer of snow and fall into the icy river, there I’d stay in my frozen tomb, all alone in the wilderness.
I reached the log shelter at Camp Siberia at 4,000 feet. This was the first building I’d seen since leaving the Dosewallips campground yesterday. Partly buried by snow, the Anderson Pass shelter was a three sided structure; board-and-baton siding and a split shake roof covered a log frame. It was easy to imagine the joy a hypothermic hiker would feel stumbling into this life-saving structure. There were a few boards missing, but frame had survived another winter intact except for one of the rafters that was snapped in half. Rod Farlee, from the group Friends of Olympic National Park, told me afterwards, “The Anderson Pass Shelter was built in 1934 by NPS with Public Works Administration ‘stimulus’ funds. It was last rehab’d by backcountry carpenter Don ‘Duck’ Houk in 2009. Long may it stand!”
In the distance a bird called out and a lone insect buzzed past. Nothing else moved. The cacophony of spring was far below. As I climbed, the only other sounds were my scraping steps and ragged breathing. It felt good to be in the Olympics by myself for a few days. My mind had drifted and I lost the trail. There were no tracks to follow. Normal trail markers like tree stumps and the flat faces of sawed logs were buried under many feet of snow. The mosaic pattern of pine needles dappling the snow looked the same no matter which tree trunks I threaded between. A vertical cliff of rock and roots rose in front of me. I reached for my GPS.
I couldn’t have crossed Anderson Pass this early in the season without the miracle of my Garmin eTrex navigation system. Multiple global positioning satellites that orbited far above the earth triangulated my position. I appeared as a moving dot on the electronic map that I held in the palm of my hand. With my GPS I wasn’t really alone on Anderson Pass. My Garmin told me that the trail wound along the top of the cliff many feet straight above my head. My Garmin told me it was a long way back down the mountainside until I could regain the trail. My Garmin did not tell me the way back to the trail was by grabbing dangling roots and pulling myself up the cliff face, through dripping vines and a misting stream – I made that decision on my own. Climbing with a full backpack wasn’t easy. My arm muscles quivered and my crampons skated on the bare rock. With a final pull to safety, I was over the edge and breathing hard on my hands and knees, but I was back on the trail.
Back safely on the correct route and bending under the weight of my backpack, I climbed slowly. I was breathing hard. I reached the edge of the woods. Blue sky. Short breaths. Stepped forward. Between two high peaks in a shallow dip filled with ten feet of snow, I stood on 4,468 foot Anderson Pass. I was jubilant. I stood there and caught my breath. I don’t think I’m going to be climbing peaks in Nepal anytime soon, but I did get a taste of the elation climbers must feel on the top of snowy peaks. It was a feeling of youth and vigor, which at least for the moment, chased away the specter of old age. I faced the southwest and started down the other side of the pass a few minutes after 1pm. In a few steps I had crossed over to the frozen headwaters of the Quinault River watershed.
Following the buried trail downhill was even more difficult. Directly below the pass the valley turned steeper, and so the trail switch-backed more often to compensate. I was off-trail frequently, but managed to stay away from the sheer cliffs to the north. I scurried across two broad valleys that had been swept clean by avalanches – hanging cliffs of snow above were poised to thunder down again. The snow finally ended at the junction of the O’Neil Pass Trail at 3,100 feet. At 3pm I unlaced my crampon straps and put away my GPS. None too soon – the screen was flashing “low battery” and my back-up batteries were the wrong size.
I cautiously crossed White Creek on saplings and stones above a broken bridge and continued on down the trail. The feeling of a solid, dry trail under my boots made me smile. Three miles after the O”Neal trail junction, I entered the magnificent Enchanted Valley. I first saw the steep walls of this huge canyon back in April. Today the waterfalls were smaller than they were earlier in the spring, but they were still flowing steadily off the high cliffs above. I watched a black bear nose about the green grass and shoots. Bees buzzed around the wildflowers and birds sang. After snowy, monochrome Anderson Pass, this verdant valley was Shangri La. I chatted with the first people I’d seen since I left the Dosewallips campground.
I made camp at 5pm next to the Enchanted Valley Chalet. I love both the striking Enchanted Valley Chalet and the solid Anderson Pass Shelter. While their man-made presence doesn’t confirm to a strict definition of wilderness, their historical value and the security they provide hikers gives them a free pass in my mind. Tired, I went to sleep when it was still light. I had only hiked 9 miles that day but had gained and then lost a total of around 4,300 feet, almost all of the elevation change over difficult hiking in the snow. I slept for 12 hours.
The next morning I hiked out. After climbing over snowy Anderson Pass, the day was an easy stroll along the lush Quinault River valley. After lunch I sat with my back propped up against a log; warm breezes tickled the aspen leaves while the sun warmed my face and the murmuring river lulled me to sleep. I reached the Graves Creek trailhead at almost 6pm, walking 13.5 miles since waking up at Enchanted Valley that morning. I hitched a ride to the Lake Quinault Lodge where I indulged myself for a couple of days, sleeping on a soft bed and eating delicious meals served in the historic dining room.
At Lake Quinault Lodge there was plenty of time to think about the magnificent wilderness I had experienced. In the end, a highway that circled outside the park was completed in the 1930s. A road to Hurricane Ridge, giving drivers a glimpse of the park’s interior, was built in the 1950s. But that was it. The dream of highways cutting across Olympic National Park ended in 1988, when 95% of the park was officially designated wilderness by an act of the U.S. Congress. The act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Author David Louter concluded in Windshield Wilderness, “In the end, this story reminds us that cars, like people who drive them, have a role in shaping how we think of national parks as wilderness reserves, and in the place they all have in nature.” Though automobiles have a role, I’m pleased that in remote Olympic National Park, that role has been a minor one. Anderson Pass has remained a majestic wilderness area, unchanged since the last ice age, because the planned highway over the pass was never built. Simply put, wilderness can’t exist if you have to drive your car on a highway to visit it; an impossibility – like capturing fog or saving cotton candy on your tongue.
While over three million people visit Olympic National Park annually, only forty thousand camp in the wilderness. Is it fair that 1% of the visitors use 95% of the park? Perhaps not, but what would have happened if all the highway construction plans had been realized? The rugged Olympic wilderness would have been tamed into a pretty landscape that you could see through your car’s windshield. That’s the way it ended up in Yellowstone National Park, where paved roads conveniently loop through all parts of the park. Easy access yes, but Yellowstone suffers from nasty traffic jams, overflowing parking lots and huge RV’s and buses everywhere. Ironically, today Yellowstone is debating how to limit automobile access.
I’m thankful to the early wilderness advocates, like Harold Ickes and those since who have fought the battle to protect Olympic National Park. I’m thankful that today supporters of the Wild Olympics campaign are continuing that fight by trying to secure Wild and Scenic protection for many of the rivers that flow out of Olympic National Park to the sea. Finally, I’m thankful I was healthy enough to experience the remoteness of Anderson Pass. The climb wasn’t easy, but in my mind, the difficulty of the adventure should draw and not deter. I want the lure of Olympic National Park’s remote wilderness to bring more tourism. I don’t want this backcountry only for myself; I want to see more hikers, backpackers and climbers. Instead of driving around the park, if you are able, leave your car behind, join me on the trail, and as the 1976 Olympic National Park Master Plan says, “…satisfy the need for the special peace and renewal of human spirit that undeveloped, unspoiled wild lands can offer us.”
The thumbnail images below can be viewed as a slide show, just click on an image to start slideshow. Click or tap on the right or left side of the image to view the next or previous image. Click or tap outside the slideshow image and the slideshow will close.
To “Pin” an image, click the “Pin It” button and select image from list.